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The Dartmouth
February 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Students Discuss Challenges to Campus Activism

Students said that barriers to activist movements on campus include student body demographics, a culture of apathy and administrative uncooperativeness.

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This article is featured in the 2024 Winter Carnival special issue. 

Dartmouth students have a rich history of activism: from alcohol ban protests in 1952 to South African Apartheid protests in 1986 to a climate justice march in 2023, students speaking out is a time-honored tradition at the College on the Hill. 

At the same time, student activists have also often faced opposition to their movements. These institutional and personal challenges include threats and doxxing from other students; administrative reluctance to acknowledge student organizations and their demands; and difficulties organizing. Often, they reflect administrative and student apathy, according to student activists.

Ian Scott ’24, a founding member of the Palestine Solidarity Coalition and Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth, explained that one reason student activism is often challenged is that Dartmouth is a “rich, white institution.”

“There is a lot of racism that goes into how people view [the PSC] … there [has been] repeatedly, for years now, even before the arrests of [two student protestors], a sort of labeling of us as violent people, as supporters of terrorism,” Scott said.

Dartmouth may attract even more wealthy students and white students compared to its peer institutions. According to an Opportunity Insights study published in October 2023, children of families from the top 0.1% are five times more likely to attend Dartmouth than an average applicant with the same test score, while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they were no more likely to attend.  In addition, according to the class profile for the Class of 2027, 60% of students identify as white. 

Opposition to activism on campus has, at times, devolved into threats. Scott alleged that users on Fizz, an anonymous social media platform that is popular at Dartmouth, and Librex, which was used before Fizz until February 2022, have threatened members of the PSC and said he has been called a “terrorist” for his advocacy for Palestine. 

Doxxing and other threats “alienate and marginalize” student activist organizations, Scott said. 

Student activists also shared mixed experiences working with faculty and administration. 

Clark Paolini ’25, co-president of Access Dartmouth, a student organization that advocates for increased accessibility on campus, explained that some professors are “more understanding” about disabilities than others. He suggested that this variability discourages students who already face “daunting” barriers to access from reaching out for help or for extra time to complete an assignment. 

A member of the Class of 2027 involved with the Dartmouth Political Union requested anonymity to share her experiences with campus activism because the DPU is a bipartisan organization. She said she believes there is a negative stigma around activism at Dartmouth that disincentivizes some students from getting involved.

“I’m involved with a lot of political groups, so I feel like I engage with a lot of political discourse, but I also know the stereotype of ‘those [government] kids — no one likes those [government] kids who are always talking about these issues,’” she said, referring to students who study or major in government. 

Scott suggested that so-called apathy among students is often used as a “mask” to disguise discriminatory beliefs.

“When that mask is disturbed, when it slips, that’s when you see racism and classism come out,” he said. 

According to Scott, student dining workers, represented by the SWCD, were often subjected to derogatory treatment from their peers during the unionization process.

“You have people coming out of the woodwork to … make all these racist remarks about people that work at Novack [Cafe], that work at Ramekin [Cafe], coupled with how [they are] undeserving of more money [and] should just work harder,” he explained.

Paolini reflected that apathy often worsens the challenges faced by disabled students face by increasing stress. 

“When we go to an academically rigorous school, the pressure of that environment can lead to an academic culture that’s a lot about sprints and high energy periods and burnout,” Paolini said. “That kind of mindset leads to inaccessibility for disabled students.”

Paolini attributed this to the misconception that making a class more accessible decreases its rigor. He emphasized that policies that aid disabled students benefit their peers, professors, faculty members and others.

“[Access is] not just an issue that only disabled students can care about,” he said. “We should at least keep in mind, not just for students, but also for faculty, for graduate students — [that] there’s going to be a lot of stress and strain on this campus.” 

He also praised the administration for being “responsive and willing to work.” However, he noted that Access Dartmouth’s advocacy is often limited by factors out of the club’s control, such as member retention. 

“People are really excited about the club at the beginning of the term, but then midterms and other responsibilities can lead it to fall by the wayside,” he said. 

In contrast, Scott said he does not believe the College administration has been responsive or cooperative with the SWCD’s unionization efforts. 

Specifically, he said he was frustrated when the College refused to voluntarily acknowledge the SWCD’s unionization in January 2022. At that time, Scott estimated that over 85% of the union workforce had already signed onto cards, and a petition demanding voluntary recognition had been signed by over 1,000 students, faculty and alumni. 

“The College still responded with, ‘We think this is such an important thing that everybody’s voice needs to be heard,’ [so] we need an election,” Scott said. “But I mean … what other voices are we looking for?”

SWCD gained recognition with a unanimous vote in March 2022. During the subsequent negotiating process, however, Scott also felt like the College was “[trying] to slow us down in our process of fighting for what we deserve as workers,” Scott said.

In response, by Feb. 17, 2023, 99% of SWCD members voted to authorize a strike. The College called a meeting the next day to verbally agree to SWCD’s proposal of $21 base pay for student dining workers. 

Scott reflected on SWCD’s achievement in negotiating higher wages, noting that the administration was forced to acknowledge them because they made themselves “an undeniable presence” on campus. This was “the same process” through which protestors eventually convinced the College to divest from South African apartheid during the 1980s, he said. 

In November 1985, members of Dartmouth Community for Divestment erected shanty towns on the Green to pressure the College into divesting from companies doing business in South Africa. Two students who were sleeping in one of the shanties were attacked by 12 other students with sledgehammers in January 1986 — 10 of whom were from the staff of The Dartmouth Review — according to the New York Times. In November 1989, the College’s Board of Trustees decided to divest all holdings in companies doing business in South Africa. 

PSC activists have often drawn parallels between the College’s divestment following the South African apartheid protests with the call for the College to now divest from “Israeli apartheid” in Gaza. 

Scott emphasized the importance of outreach by activist organizations to get more students involved.  

“We’re trying to win the people that want to be more informed, people that want to do something but don’t necessarily know how to get involved,” he said.